Monday’s Guests – The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture

Today’s guest post comes from Jeremy Fordham, a contributing writer for Online PhD Programs.

The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture

The Earth is a vast place, but the materials that make up the Earth (soil, minerals and water) are finite and non-renewable resources. Agricultural practices of the last 70 years have caused the depletion and contamination of some the these valuable resources. While trends in farming have had some benefits, these practices have also contributed to some very serious social and economic problems, such as the demise of small farms and the disintegration of rural communities. However the solution doesn’t have to be left up to only those who have attended Ph.D. programs in fields such as environmental science. There is a very simple solution — sustainable agriculture, which is a concept that seeks to address and correct some of these issues and can be applied in practically every region.

Sustainable agriculture is the concept of using more eco-friendly methods of farming in order to counteract the environmental impact of modern industrial farming methods and feed more of the world’s population. Studies have shown that contrary to popular wisdom, practices such as genetically engineered crops, government policy, over-industrialization of farms and use of toxic chemicals not only do not increase the world’s food supply, but also have an adverse affects on the climate, human health and prosperity. It is estimated that the world’s population of undernourished will reach 800 million people, mostly in developing countries which are disproportionately affected by drought.

The solution is to encourage a move toward sustainability in rural areas and to develop viable farming methods for non-traditional areas, such as cities. Urban farming is already achieving great success in cities such as Kampala and Nairobi. The success of urban farming in Kampala has led to the adoption of new city ordinances which encourage and protect the interest of urban farmers, most of whom are poor and women. This has led also to a shift in attitude towards the legitimacy of urban farming as a viable solution to economic and nutritional problems in the region.

Though not yet a policy, sustainable agriculture is a constantly growing and evolving concept with input from persons on every side of the issue: lawmakers, researchers, consumers, farm workers and other interested parties. The goals of agricultural sustainability are to promote social and economic equality, create economic profitability and to protect environmental and human health. The approach to achieving these goals is through a three-pronged strategy which involves guardianship of resources, a system-wide study and restructuring of farming practices, and a collaborative effort on the part of all interested parties to properly implement these practices.

Guardianship of Resources

The guardianship of resources depends on adopting farming methods which counteract and prevent the problems of water shortages and contamination, soil erosion, air pollution and the harming of fragile ecosystems. These include proper crop rotation, natural methods of water and soil conservation, the use of recycling and reusing organic matter, and natural methods of pest control. Water conservation is one critical factor that can be enhanced by using proper irrigation techniques, and also will have a beneficial affect on soil erosion. In fact, California, which has a severe water shortage issue, has taken measures to create better water storage systems and encourage farmers to plant drought-resistant crops. The protection of ecosystems will increase the population of beneficial wild and insect life which naturally eliminate harmful pests, thereby reducing the need for harmful chemical agents to control pest populations. Similarly, crop diversification can counteract the affects of over-planting that contribute to the problem of soil erosion and depletion. The proper reuse and recycling of plant and animal matter also helps protect the soil at the same time as it negates the need for and usage of fertilizing agents that pollute the environment. Proper control of water runoff and the development and use of better drainage techniques will further aid in the control of water pollution, soil erosion and water salinity.

The other part of protecting human resources is making these practices economically viable. The result will be a better quality of life for farmers, farm workers and those who live agriculturally-dependent communities. Sustainability will also positively affect the health of the population as a whole by reducing pollutants, increasing the quality and abundance of food and stabilizing world economies.

A System-wide Approach and a Collaborative Effort

These practices go hand in hand. A systematic approach implies the study and implementation of policies and practices that look at the whole picture, both locally and globally. Such an approach involves the input of not only the policymakers, but also the input of scientists, farm workers and consumers to look at how farming practices effect the whole range of social and environmental development and enhancement. Agencies such as the World Sustainable Agriculture Association (WSAA) and the Worldwatch Institute’s Sustainable Agriculture Program (WISAP) are working in conjunction with researchers and government agencies to study and educate about the issues affecting food production. They are also working on a global scale to develop and implement policies that will improve food production while enhancing the quality of life for everyone. The WSAA has organized in the U.S., India, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia and at Beijing Agricultural University, and much of the work of the WISAP is based in Africa and other developing countries.

The process of collaboration involves the unified effort of all to make these policies and solutions a viable reality. Educators and researches need to work closely with policy-makers and the public to educate them on alternatives to industrialized farming methods and the damage they cause. Consumers must demand food that is grown in environmentally construct ways. Likewise, governments must abandon policies that harm the environment and contribute to the decline of the quality of the food, as well as the health and well being of those who produce and consume it. Finally, farmers need to take the initiative to commit to utilizing more sustainable methods of food production.

The goals of sustainable agriculture are lofty, but achievable. They are also necessary to ensure the future health of our planet and everything living on it. Prosperity, productivity and the protection of our natural and human resources are not mutually exclusive goals. We have the ability to feed the world’s growing population in ways that protect the environment, conserve and more efficiently utilize resources, and promote economic stability. It will take a concerted effort on the part of all of us to see that the objectives necessary to achieve these goals are developed and properly implemented, not only in the interest of the present, but for future generations.